KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Two things about Tennessee’s men’s basketball team give it a chance to continue its improbable march toward an NCAA tournament berth: accountability and a willingness to be coached.
The so-called “Baby Vols” are trying to overcome the harsh reality that led to them being picked to finish 13th out of the 14-team SEC at the start of the season, but they might be running short on talent and out of energy.
The Vols’ squandered an 18-point, second-half lead in a 64-59 road loss at Mississippi State on Saturday, the fourth time this season UT has lost a game after leading by double digits.
Tennessee freshman point guard Jordan Bone, who stepped up his game with team highs in scoring (13) and rebounding (8), assigned blame appropriately.
“Coming into the second half, we had controlled the game the first half, ” said Bone, referencing the Vols’ 33-21 halftime lead during the Vol Network postgame show. “In the second half, they kinda kicked our butts.
“We lost the turnover and rebound battle, and when you do that, you can’t win games, especially on the road.”
Bone said the bigger Bulldogs made a key adjustment in the second half that led to them winning the battle in the paint.
“It was tougher to get the balls to the bigs in the second half; they had started to front our big men,” Bone said. “It was an adjustment they made and it worked.”
Coach Rick Barnes also pointed to Mississippi State’s ability to win the rebounding battle, 55-45.
The Vols have often been able to out-rebound big, long teams throughout the season despite having the shortest team in the SEC.
Indeed, Tennessee out-rebounded the Bulldogs, 49-35, in the teams’ first meeting this season, a 91-74 UT win in Knoxville on Jan. 21.
Barnes was upset Mississippi State turned the tables on Saturday.
“They got what, 19 second-chance points around the rim and we get six?” Barnes said. “We get 9 offensive rebounds and they get 21.”
Leading the Bulldogs’ rebounding efforts was 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman Schnider Herard, who had 15 rebounds to go with his 12 points.
Herard was a top 50 player in the nation when he signed with Mississippi State over offers from Kansas, Arizona, Indiana, Purdue and UConn, among others.
Tennessee freshman Grant Williams, a 6-5 freshman who ranked No. 191 in the nation coming out of the Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C., appeared overmatched for one of the few times this season.
Williams, it should be noted, had only two other power conference schools offer him a scholarship — Rutgers and Texas Tech — and his efforts were not enough to overcome Mississippi State’s talented interior players.
Williams fouled out of Saturday’s game with 11 points and 5 rebounds, but six of his points came on two 3-pointers.
Barnes made it clear he was not happy with Williams being “willing to hang out on the perimeter.”
A closer look at the box score’s “plus-minus” — an indicator of how the team fared on the scoreboard with each player in the game — shows Williams’ on-court presence was missed.
The Vols outscored Mississippi State by five points in the 23 minutes Williams was in the game.
Kyle Alexander had the highest plus-minus — a plus-11 points during his 14 minutes on the floor. Robert Hubbs lll had the lowest, with the Vols getting outscored by 12 points during his 32 minutes on the court.